On his death anniversary, let us remember Nehru's efforts to raise India from 'mud and filth'

Nehru’s effort to raise India from what Tagore called mud & filth left behind by the British, needs to be remembered when we see the country plunging towards darkness, write Aditya & Mridula Mukherjee

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@_nehruvian
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@_nehruvian

Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee

We remember Nehru today as all the values that he stood for, the very basis on which the Indian nation state was born and developed, are very severely threatened.

There is an attempt to demonize Nehru today, relentlessly repeating abuse and lies about him, using a widespread propaganda machinery, which remind one of fascist regimes. Nehru is held responsible for all the evils in India, economic backwardness, poverty, lack of health and education, backward agriculture, the Kashmir and China problems, growth of communalism and even the partition of India. It is even said that he was actually a Muslim, as if being a Muslim itself would be the ultimate indictment of him. One BJP leader from Kerala even wrote in the RSS journal ‘Kesari’ that Godse should have fired his shots at Nehru, rather than Gandhi!

Even the British colonial authorities, fighting whom Nehru spent 30 years of his life, nine of them in prison (a fact conveniently forgotten), did not attack him in the manner that the religious communal forces, who were their allies in containing the Indian national movement, do today.

We must ask ourselves the question that if Nehru was so evil, why did Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’ as Subhash Bose called him, specifically choose him as his successor?

In a speech at the AICC, as early as 25 January 1942, Gandhiji declared:

“… somebody suggested that … Jawaharlal and I were estranged. This is baseless…. You cannot divide water by repeatedly striking it with a stick. It is just as difficult to divide us.” (A good warning to the propaganda machinery of today which relentlessly tries to create and misrepresent differences among our national movement leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, Patel, Bhagat Singh, Maulana Azad, etc.)

Gandhiji went on to say:

“I have always said that not Rajaji, nor Sardar Vallabhbhai, but Jawaharlal will be my successor…. When I am gone … he will speak my language too. Even if this does not happen , I would at least die with this faith.”

Why did Gandhiji have such faith in Nehru? First, because Nehru quintessentially represented and fought for all the core values of the Indian National Movement, which Tagore called the “Idea of India”; the values of Sovereignty and self-reliance, Democracy, Secularism, a Pro-poor Orientation and the inculcation of a Modern Scientific temper. Second, Nehru was seen to be the most capable person in implementing the Idea of India in the newborn nation state, which was about to come. A task, which Nehru was to perform with great glory for the first 17 years after independence, as Prime Minister.

Now that the very Idea of India is at threat, what can we learn from Nehru?

The biggest challenge to the Idea of India came at independence itself with the holocaust like situation due to the religious communal rioting before and after partition, which led to lakhs losing their lives and millions becoming refugees. On top of this the Mahatma was murdered by Hindu communal forces, an assassination which Nehru clearly saw as an attempt to change the nature of the state. As he wrote to his chief ministers on 5 February 1948 “… a deliberate coup d’état was planned involving the killing of several persons and the promotion of general disorder to enable the particular group concerned to seize power.” An attempt to create the mirror image of ‘Muslim Pakistan’, a ‘Hindu India’. Our nationalist leaders were not about to let this happen. Nehru with full support of Sardar Patel banned the RSS and put 25,000 of its activists in prison. They staked their own lives to stop the violence and bring peace between the religious communities.

Equally important, Nehru converted the first general election of 1951-2 into a virtual referendum on whether the people would vote for a secular India or a ‘Hindu’ India like ‘Muslim’ Pakistan. He travelled 40,000 kms. addressed about 35 million people (one out of every ten Indian) promoting the secular cause. The results were dramatic, so soon after the communal tension had peaked. The Hindu communal parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, Jana Sangh, Ram Rajya Parishad, etc., all put together won only 6 per cent of the votes and 10 seats out of 489 in the Lok Sabha. A stunning achievement. The communal threat was pushed back for decades but unfortunately not extinguished.

Now when the communal forces again loom large it is necessary to remember Nehru’s warning that majority communalism “could disguise itself as nationalism” and was in fact “the Indian version of fascism …” and must be struggled against relentlessly.

The other element of Idea of India, Democracy, is also under siege today with globally recognised institutions having downgraded India in the democracy index and describing India as a “flawed democracy” or “elctoral autocracy”. There is much to learn from Nehru here. For Nehru, democracy and civil liberties were non-negotiable. “I would not … give up the democratic system for anything” he said. For him democracy meant a free press which could indulge in the severest criticism of the highest authority. It meant respecting and encouraging a strong Opposition. In 1950 he declared, “ I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say ‘yes’ to one man. I want a strong opposition.” At another time he said, anticipating recent developments, “This is too large a country with too many legitimate diversities to permit any so-called ‘strong man’ to trample over people and their ideas.”

On the issue of sovereignty and self-reliance, Nehru’s deeds were as important as his words. He was clear that political independence is of no value unless economic independence is achieved. Using the Nehru-Mahalanobis strategy and the Public Sector he transformed India from a virtual neo-colonial situation at independence where we were nearly 100 per cent dependent for capital goods and machinery on the advanced countries for making any investment to a situation where by 1960 only 43 per cent and by 1970 only 9 per cent had to be imported. This step towards economic self-reliance enabled India to have an independent foreign policy and lead over a 100 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, which refused to succumb to either of the super powers.

Nehru, far from neglecting agriculture, set India on the path of the Green Revolution with the Land Reforms and necessary technological changes, realizing that true sovereignty could not be achieved without food security. Daniel Thorner, the renowned economist, nailed the lie “that the initial five year plans neglected agriculture’ and said, “The facts are that in India's first twenty one years of independence, more has been done to foster change in agriculture and more change has actually taken place than in the preceding two hundred years.”

Also Nehru realised that true sovereignty can be achieved only if India became self reliant in Science and Technology, an area left barren by colonialism. Anticipating the knowledge revolution, Nehru, beginning as early as the 1950s set up the IITs, IIMs, NPL, NCL, BARC, AIIMS, etc. The fact that today the service sector is the leading sector in the Indian economy producing more than half of India’s GDP has happened based on the knowledge revolution initiated by Nehru. This initiative had also contributed to the “Scientific Temper” which we are busy destroying today with claims from the highest authorities of plastic surgery and nuclear missiles (Arjuna’s nuclear tipped arrow) in Ancient India and fighting Corona with Tali, Thali, Gobar, Go-Mutra and Ganga snan!

Last, though not the least, Nehru, like his mentor the Mahatma, was never to lose track of the need to uplift the poor. As he put it in 1952, “If poverty and low standards continue then democracy, for all its fine institutions and ideals, ceases to be a liberating force. It must therefore aim continuously at the eradication of poverty….” A legacy we need to remember when we have reached among the lowest in the world in the ‘Hunger Index’, more than half our children are malnourished and floating dead bodies in the Ganga remind us that the poor do not have even the wherewithal to do the last rites of their loved ones.

Nehru’s fantastic effort to raise India from what Tagore called “the mud and filth” left behind by the British (84 per cent illiterate and an average life expectancy of less than 30 years at independence), needs to be remembered when we see the country plunging towards darkness. Its delicately crafted secular fabric torn apart, the poor abandoned and ‘freedom of speech and association’, one of the greatest achievements of our national liberation struggle, being increasingly denied to citizens.

( Aditya Mukherjee is a Former Professor of Contemporary History, JNU. Mridula Mukherjee is an author, historian and a former director of Nehru Memorial)

    Published: 27 May 2022, 8:26 AM